Elephant

Looking back on my time in elephant land

It’s as hot as ever here. I feel like I’m sweating gallons a day—even in the shade with a breeze—and I now intimately understand the warnings everyone in Colombo gave me way back in November: “do you know it’s hot where you’re going?” Even writing this back at Rajarata where I have regular access to air-conditioning, daily power blackouts make me question my sanity. And I’ve been covered in mosquito bites for the past several weeks, though I feel like I’ve gotten better at swatting down annoying insects with the deftness of a merciless ninja. In the evermore challenging environment, the elephants have also been hit-or-miss. We’ve had some of our most exciting elephant encounters during this trip (read more below), but days in a row of low sighting rates can be discouraging. And through all of this, I find myself adapting—maybe thriving—through it all.

This was our last trip to Wasgamuwa for fieldwork. Since December, we’ve come to memorize the park’s winding roads just as you get to know the hallways and shortcuts in a more typical workplace. Park officials have come to know us and our work (even with a big staff turnover a few months ago), and they no longer give me a sideways look when I indicate I should pay the local rate to enter the park. And of course what I’ll miss the most is the elephants we’ve come to know, some since our first week of observations back in December Those are the really special ones, as it seems that most male elephants seem to only spend a week or two in the park before moving on to find greener grass somewhere else.

One of the days during this past trip, our tracker Dhanushka greeted us at the park and told us that he had seen two adult tuskers in the morning. I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe him. Tuskers are rare in Sri Lanka for reasons I’ve explained previously, and we had only seen one in Wasgamuwa (way back in December) and he had been less than 10 years old, too young to be included in our dataset. But then Dhanushka showed us photos and my jaw dropped. I hurried everyone into the vehicle and we set out to find them. Sure enough, we found both tuskers that day: one between 20 and 30 years old, and another between 10 and 15 years old. Sachintha was especially excited with our findings, as he had been asking about tuskers for months. But just as mysteriously as they appeared, they vanished. After two days, we never spotted them again.

The most impressive of any tuskers that we’ve seen in Wasgamuwa, and he only has one tusk (his right tusk is missing). It’s not the best photo, but we never could get close enough for a good one. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The most impressive of any tuskers that we’ve seen in Wasgamuwa, and he only has one tusk (his right tusk is missing). It’s not the best photo, but we never could get close enough for a good one. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The other tusker we saw that day. Much younger, but with impressive tusks still. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The other tusker we saw that day. Much younger, but with impressive tusks still. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

And we’re used to only spotting elephants briefly before they move on from Wasgamuwa. In a relatively small, enclosed park, it’s difficult to remember that these elephants are animals that move around a lot, and sometimes the resources outside the park are much more attractive than the safety the park provides. This, of course, is why human−elephant conflict is so prevalent and why we don’t see elephants jam-packed into the parks. These are big animals that, in unmanaged conditions, require a lot of room to acquire the resources they need. From inside our vehicle, they sometimes seem like little pawns or gamepieces, animate objects that are there for us to find as they move in and out of the forest. But as obvious as it may seem, it’s important to realize that these animals exist outside the operating hours of the park and that they have real-life, 24/7 impacts on the environments where they live. We’re reminded of this whenever a lot of commotion happens, interrupting the usual tranquility of watching elephants. These moments usually happen in the evenings when female groups congregate, and one female gets startled by something (usually, we can’t identify the source of the fright). When a female sends an alarm call, all the nearby females rush over to touch and smell each other, with a few usually urinating in the process. It’s a sight to see, and it’s an important reminder of the physical power these animals possess. Here’s a video of one of these memorable encounters. I highly recommend watching with your device’s sound on:

Wasgamuwa National Park, 25 March 2019
Riding around in our vehicle often gives us the sense that the elephants are smaller than they actually are. This photo with Nimal holding up a stick shows just how tall they actually are (the end of the stick is marked with the red arrow). How do we know this? Many of the trees in Wasgamuwa are conspicuously marked with mud on one side; this is where an elephant has rubbed its muddy covering off on the tree. Nimal is showing where the mud on this tree reaches, meaning this is just a minimum height for this itchy elephant. It’s hard to tell, but it’s likely that this elephant would be tall enough for Nimal to walk underneath its chin, without Nimal having to crouch.

Riding around in our vehicle often gives us the sense that the elephants are smaller than they actually are. This photo with Nimal holding up a stick shows just how tall they actually are (the end of the stick is marked with the red arrow). How do we know this? Many of the trees in Wasgamuwa are conspicuously marked with mud on one side; this is where an elephant has rubbed its muddy covering off on the tree. Nimal is showing where the mud on this tree reaches, meaning this is just a minimum height for this itchy elephant. It’s hard to tell, but it’s likely that this elephant would be tall enough for Nimal to walk underneath its chin, without Nimal having to crouch.

We also saw our first official leopard during this last trip. (I say official because it was the first one that everyone in our vehicle saw. I’d like to believe that I saw a leopard in the forest a few weeks ago, but I’m thinking more and more that it was actually a deer…). But don’t get excited, I don’t have a photo. The sighting happened in a few seconds as the leopard moved deeper in a forest patch. It wasn’t exactly the first leopard that Sachintha or I envisioned, but at least we didn’t leave Wasgamuwa without seeing one. What I could have lived with is not seeing another python. But guess what? We saw one crossing the road. Like our last python sighting, we never saw its head, making the experience even creepier.

Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 March 2019

Our last day in Wasgamuwa was bittersweet, sort of like the last day of high school. I looked around the bungalow after I packed up all of the equipment and my personal belongings, at the same proud of our accomplishments and wondering how we made it. We exchanged last-minute selfies with members of the Premasiri family, promising we’d see each other again soon. I secretly wished Monica would slip me some last-minute roti and curry, my favorite dish that she made for us frequently (okay, maybe that part wasn’t like high school). Moksha, Nimal and Monica’s youngest child and only daughter, was sobbing when we left, apparently distraught that the two guys who store elephant poop in the freezer were leaving. A few days before leaving, we rented a bungalow in the park as a way to thank the Premasiris; everyone was invited to spend the night along the river. Monica, Nimesh, and Moksha never really go into the park, so it was a treat to see what their father and older brother do each day. We had a barbecue that night, eating chicken, sausages (which were really just chicken hot dogs), and sliced bread, and it was delicious. It was nice to wake up that morning and drive back to our own bungalow, spotting elephants along the way.

Siblings Moksha and Nimesh by the river where we stayed in the Wasgamuwa bungalow.

Siblings Moksha and Nimesh by the river where we stayed in the Wasgamuwa bungalow.

Way back in December when I was first searching for a place to live near Wasgamuwa, I did not choose to live with a family. In fact, we even visited a few homestays that I immediately rejected. I didn’t know the bungalow we ended up choosing would also be inhabited by the Premasiri family, and to be honest, I might not have chosen it if I did know. Being so far from what was familiar to me, I was content to have a sort of private space where I could recharge each day after being out in the park.

But I couldn’t be happier that Sachintha and I got to spend almost four months with the Premasiris, and it gave me a different perspective on conservation. The field of conservation biology doesn’t occur in a vacuum, which is easy to forget when you’re worried about collecting data and then watching those data transform to numbers on a computer screen. But families like the Premasiris around Wasgamuwa want everything out of life like all of us. While we were at the bungalow, we saw Nirosh being a normal 21-year-old watching TV while trying his best with the ladies on his cell phone, Nimesh was studying hard for his end-of-year exams that would determine if he went to college, Moksha practiced her dance lessons in the kitchen while her mother Monica cooked dinner, and Nimal was beaming when he told Sachintha and me that Moksha had won her dance competition. If we want to save and protect wildlife around the world, we’ll need to find pragmatic solutions that keep people like the Premasiris in mind. For elephants, that means finding creative ways to sustainably connect elephants with the human communities that live around them.

Soon, we’ll be moving to continue our research in Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks. It’s quite possible that we’ll encounter a few of our Wasgamuwa elephants there, and I look forward to better understanding the difference between the parks in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’m back at Rajarata processing fecal samples and catching up on other work, remembering the elephants (and people) that I now miss.

The sunset driving out of Wasgamuwa on our last day of following elephants. 1 Apr 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The sunset driving out of Wasgamuwa on our last day of following elephants. 1 Apr 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The scoop on (elephant) poop

My daily life here in Sri Lanka is becoming less deliberate and more routine. I regularly count the frogs that have joined me in the shower, I have a go-to soundtrack that I listen to on the drives from Rajarata to Wasgamuwa and back, and I depend on the nearby chants of the Buddhist monks to act as an alarm clock (I wish those wake-up calls weren’t at 4:45am each morning, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers…). The temperatures outside have quickly risen, and these routines help me cope with the heat. The heat also makes the whole no-hot-water situation easier to deal with too. With the transition from the wet to the dry season, the rains have also mostly subsided, although that hasn’t seemed to have an effect on the humidity levels.

The dryer heat alters the daily movement patterns of the elephants too. We’ve noticed that elephants are almost impossible to spot before 2:00pm now, even in the morning when it’s relatively cool. We think they’re spending the heat of the day under tree cover in the forest where we can’t see them. The vegetation is so thick that most times after moving just a few meters into the forest, we completely lose an elephant. (On a related note, we’ve also noticed that elephants seem much more wary of the vehicle and more apt to move into the forest when approach, a possible result of the recent crop-raiding that has occurred.) So as we’re driving through the park, I’m sure that there are tons of elephants (…literally) that we’re missing just a little bit off the road. We sometimes hear their trumpets and rumbles, but if we can’t see them, there’s not much we can do. Decreased elephant visibility at Wasgamuwa and lowering floodplains in other parts of the island are signs that it’s about time to move to another fieldsite and meet some new elephants. Hopefully we see some old “friends” too.

Encounters with elephants out in the open are increasingly rare with the high temperatures. Male 012, 12 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

Encounters with elephants out in the open are increasingly rare with the high temperatures. Male 012, 12 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

So I’ll cherish our last few weeks in Wasgamuwa, a place that I’ll always remember as being my first “real” start to fieldwork on my own. I’ll admit it: the adjustment to rugged field conditions was tough to me, as I think they would be to most millennials who suddenly find themselves without reliable internet for weeks at a time. But since then, I’ve embraced the experience and I now enjoy being able to put off emails and other responsibilities that rely on being tied to a computer (the catching up with all that stuff at the other end of the trip is another story though). I’m fortunate to surround myself with friends, family, and colleagues who are patient enough to deal with all of this, on top of my propensity to keep to myself even when I have no other excuse.


Despite the wane in elephant activity around Wasgamuwa over the past month, there remains one fact in life: everyone poops. And in fact, even when it’s hot outside, elephants will poop, and that fact is evident as we drive around the park. In the areas that they frequent, elephant poop is ubiquitous, and it’s important for proper functioning of the ecosystem. Wild adult elephants are estimated to produce over 100 pounds of poop each day, and because they are rather poor at digesting their food, all of this dung returns vital nutrients back to their enviornment. Whole populations of insects and other invertebrates depend on elephant dung, including some species of the infamous dung beetles in Africa, who lay their eggs in the stuff.

I’m especially proud of this photo I got at a zoo a few months before I left for Sri Lanka. I’ve concealed the elephant’s identity for his own modesty. And yes, I got strange looks from the zoo visitors who were around me.

I’m especially proud of this photo I got at a zoo a few months before I left for Sri Lanka. I’ve concealed the elephant’s identity for his own modesty. And yes, I got strange looks from the zoo visitors who were around me.

And most of my friends and family know of my fondness for (elephant) feces. And this penchant for poop isn’t due just to it’s environmental importance, nor is it a result of all of the practical uses people have found for it (for those who are curious, you can use elephant dung to make paper products and generate energy, among other things). But it’s what scientists can do with elephant poop (and poop from other species, for that matter) that really sealed the deal for me. We can learn about an animal’s life from its poop, including its diet, genetic composition, microbiome, and other things. For our project, we’re interested in measuring hormones, the body’s chemical messengers that are important regulators of behavior, helping an animal cope with its environment. And yes, we can measure hormone metabolites in elephant poop (side note: we’re measuring the metabolites, not the hormones themselves, because like many other molecules in our body, hormones get broken down so that they don’t have longlasting effects).

I’ve shared this enthusiasm for elephant excrement with Sachintha and the rest of our field team too (poop pride is infectious, I guess, but in a good way). Any day that we get a fecal sample, we blast celebratory music from my phone as we leave the park for the bungalow. Recently, it’s been Queen’s greatest hits (both Sachintha and I watched Bohemian Rhapsody recently…we highly recommend it). So far, we’ve collected 29 fecal samples at Wasgamuwa, with everyone in the vehicle emitting silent cheers and exchanging excited looks whenever we see an elephant do his business. 29 samples may not seem like a lot for almost three months of work, but the stars have to align for us to collect a sample. First, for our project, the elephant has to be male and over ten years old, and we have to see the elephant poop himself—there are critical things we need to know about the pooper for our project (including age, body condition, and musth status), so we pass so many dung piles in the park that it crushes me to do so. Musth males also seem to poop less often, as they appear to be eating less during the day. Next, the act has to have been done in a place that we can get to it safely. That means poops in lakes or ponds are a no-go (the water would ruin the sample anyway), as are poops deep in the forest (it’s difficult to see or hear nearby elephants, and our escape routes are severely limited in the trees). And the elephants have to move away from the poop so that we can get it. Sometimes this is relatively easy, and other times we mark the GPS location of the poop and come back later (although we only have a six- to eight-hour window to do this…coming back the next day is not an option). And if we can have all these factors go in our favor, we can get a sample. We’re safe as we can be when we exit the vehicle, having special permission from Department of Wildlife Conservation officials to do so and having a park tracker with us at all times. But the work has its inherent dangers—recently we got within 10 m of a crocodile (don’t worry Mom, this species hasn’t ever killed a human), and I can’t seem to forget the giant python we saw on the side of the road last month in the park. The open plains can be deceptive too. On our last trip, we trekked through a seemingly flat plain over 150 m to get a sample, not realizing the field was a metaphorical and literal minefield of ditches created by large groups of elephants walking through mud. The short excursion resulted in me falling on my butt in the mud, our driver laughing as he navigated the landscape easily in a sarong and flip-flops.

Nimal and I after our trek through the elephant-print minefield. Not pictured: my butt covered in mud from my fall.

Nimal and I after our trek through the elephant-print minefield. Not pictured: my butt covered in mud from my fall.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented   four   samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

And the story doesn’t end with collecting the poop on the ground, as there hasn’t yet been an invention of an easy-to-use hormone gauge that you can stick into a piece of poop to know the concentration of testosterone in that sample. For long-term storage in the field, samples have to be kept frozen, which means I had to buy a freezer for our samples (just imagine the looks I got when I told Nimal that this freezer was just for poop). Power outages are relatively common and unpredictable, and with too many thawings the hormone metabolites in the poop degrades, so we keep bags of ice around the samples at all times, even when they’re in the freezer. On the day we drive back to Rajarata each trip, I pack a cooler with the fecal samples, never having told our driver what’s in the cooler (I keep it in the back of the van in case he asks for a drink from it). The samples are then put in a freezer in my kitchen until they’re processed. This has been a hallmark of my kitchen freezers over the past few years…you never know when you reach in whether you’ll get a bag full of elephant poop or a frozen breakfast sandwich.

Recently, we found a grain of rice in one of the fecal samples we collected (that’s what the red arrow is pointing to). This is evidence that this elephant exited the park to forage on crops from nearby farmers.

Recently, we found a grain of rice in one of the fecal samples we collected (that’s what the red arrow is pointing to). This is evidence that this elephant exited the park to forage on crops from nearby farmers.

And then the elaborate processing step begins. For five or six days, the samples are “baked” in individual paper bags at a low temperature (about 130ºF). Don’t worry, I don’t use my own kitchen oven for this…they make lab ovens for things like this. After the samples are sufficiently dried and there’s no more water left, each of the samples is ground into a fine powder using a sifter or coffee grinder (I’ve realized there’s a lot of kitchen−lab overlap after writing this…I’m always careful with labeling my equipment). This step helps remove any of the vegetation that’s in the dung, while increasing the surface area for the extraction step. During grinding, I have to be careful to wear a mask so that I don’t inhale dung dust. Despite the protective equipment, I still seem to develop a persistent cough shortly after grinding samples. I try not to think about it too much.

After carefully weighing each sample—now sufficiently pulverized into a powder—and putting it in a test tube, we add methanol to each sample and spin the tubes in a centrifuge for about 15 min. The hormone metabolites are drawn to the methanol near the top of the tube and all of the solid material collects at the bottom of the tube. We separate the liquid part from the solid in another tube, and voilà, we have fecal extract that we can analyze for hormone metabolites using a process called enzyme immunoassay (I’ll save that process for another post).

And so that’s from where my poop passion stems; it’s not some weird quirk, but an appreciation for the utility of the stuff. So next time you see an elephant poop (or any other animal, for that matter), don’t think “gross,” but instead, “science!”

Here’s a photo of a baby elephant. You earned it for putting up with the turd talk  (okay, last poop alliteration, I swear) . Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 Jan 2019.

Here’s a photo of a baby elephant. You earned it for putting up with the turd talk (okay, last poop alliteration, I swear). Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 Jan 2019.

An elephant in the garden, and other stories from the field

I’m writing this update from my hotel room in Kochi, India, where I’m attending the South-Central Asia Fulbright Research Conference over the next week. I’ll provide an update on this for my next post. It’s been a whirlwind past couple of weeks as I continually try to balance the demands of fieldwork with ongoing work commitments back home (I’ve quickly learned as a graduate student that grant writing will never stop). This past trip to elephant land was shorter than last time (in part because I had to make it over here to India), but it still found a way to be filled with highs and lows. The trip also brought with it challenging moments as the elephants continue to engage in crop-raiding just outside of the park boundaries. Our elephant sightings have been inconsistent: we had our lowest number of sightings on a day during this trip, with a single elephant spotted before he ran into an adjacent forest patch, but we also had a few days of sighting 40 or 50 elephants at a time. It can be difficult to stay motivated and engaged without the promise of seeing elephants, but the milestones we’ve reached help to quickly overcome these doubts. The last day of this trip marked our 40th day of fieldwork, with over 200 hours spent searching for and watching elephants. We passed our 200th elephant sighting, with now more than 50 male elephants catalogued in our database.

I’m proud of our progress on the project, but I’m always hoping to accomplish more. When I get back from India, we’ll have another trip or two to Wasgamuwa before switching field sites. It’s still the rainy season in elephant land, so most of the elephants haven’t moved on to our next parks (these areas are still heavily flooded, and there’s no reason for elephants to move away from plentiful food sources at Wasgamuwa). While traveling these past couple of days, I’ve tried to think of a narrative to weave together my experiences over the past couple of weeks, but I’ve settled on presenting a few of the most memorable moments as discrete stories. It’s not as creative or introspective as I usually get in these updates, but hopefully you enjoy it just the same.

A muddy female elephant we had a close encounter with on one of our slow days in elephant land. Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 Feb 2019.

A muddy female elephant we had a close encounter with on one of our slow days in elephant land. Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 Feb 2019.

The first story that comes to mind happened on our first night back to the bungalow. We had just spent our first afternoon and evening back in the park searching for elephants, seeing only a couple of our catalogued males while adding a couple more new ones to the database. The first day back is always the toughest: we have to catch up on what’s been going on since we left, readjust to less-than-ideal field conditions, and work just as hard to get as much data as we can. So that also means that the first night is when I sleep the deepest. So it’s no surprise that it took a few minutes of constant knocks on my door to wake up to even the most urgent situations. I remember hearing light taps on the door and thinking, “It’s probably a rodent climbing in the ceiling, I hope it goes away soon.” But then the sounds got louder and more desperate, as I heard a quiet voice murmuring, “Sir, elephant outside.” As my family and friends will tell you, the word “elephant” always makes me perk up, so I sat up in bed to better assess the situation. I quickly determined that a giant rat wasn’t knocking on my door. It was Nirosh, the son of the Nimal, who manages our bungalow. Nimal and Nirosh regularly stay overnight at our bungalow (they lightheartedly qualify themselves as our security), sleeping underneath mosquito nets on cots on the front porch. We’ve been at the bungalow when elephants have come closeby once before, so I told Nimal that if that ever happens again, to wake me up. Well, this was one of those moments I had been waiting for.

Like I’ve written before, the elephants in Wasgamuwa regularly “visit” the farmlands surrounding the park, and our bungalow is surrounded by a lot of this agriculture. The elephants that have been nearby before haven’t been visible from our property, but this time was different. Still in a sleepy haze, I followed Nirosh outside in my pajamas, where Nimal had his flashight shining on a large shape just 30 feet away in the “garden” space of our bungalow (there’s not a proper garden at our bungalow, but I had to have a catchy title for this post, okay?). I rubbed my eyes and quickly realized that the large shape was an elephant, catching up mentally to connect Nirosh’s wake-up call with what I was seeing just in front of me. In my defense, the experience was disorienting. I was outside late at night still barefoot, balancing the sight right in front of me with chaos going on around me. You see, while I was excited to see an elephant in a place I had never seen one before, all of our neighbors were not quite as pleased. Armed with firecrackers provided by the Wildlife Department, they were firing deterrents all around us, with flashes and loud noises ruining any sort of romantic version of an elephant sighting.

The experience was over in a flash, with the bull elephant quickly running to refuge to escape the firecrackers. I stood there with Nimal, Nirosh, and Sachintha for a few more moments, sort of wondering and piece together what had just happened. This was the closest thing I had experienced to the realities of human-elephant conflict. Sure, I regularly see the damage that elephants leave behind, but I’ve never really understood the personal experiences of the farmers who must be simultaneously angry at an encroaching elephant and terrified for their personal safety and livelihood (although I felt neither of these). The reality is that living alongside elephants is challenging, and the problem isn’t going to get easier with expanding human development. But, the next time I talk with people about my work or write in our next few grant proposals about why solutions to this conflict are so important, I have a renewed perspective about the real-life experiences of the local communities who face the real-life consequences of elephants. Our “elephant in the garden,” while a sort of charming novelty, gave me something much more important to reflect upon.

Male 065 in musth on 19 Feb 2019 in Wasgamuwa National Park. He wasn’t the one who visited our garden, but he’s one of the elephants who we’ve since named. Meet “Nalagiri.” As Sachintha taught me, Buddhist teachings describe a man-killing elephant named Nalagiri who was sent to kill Buddha (spoiler alert: Buddha’s kindness and grace calmed the elephant before he could commit the act). We named him Nalagiri out of respect for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and because Nalagiri has some of the most bullet wounds of any of our elephants, a sure sign he’s had not-so-pleasant encounters with humans (like the Nalagiri of Buddhist legend).

Male 065 in musth on 19 Feb 2019 in Wasgamuwa National Park. He wasn’t the one who visited our garden, but he’s one of the elephants who we’ve since named. Meet “Nalagiri.” As Sachintha taught me, Buddhist teachings describe a man-killing elephant named Nalagiri who was sent to kill Buddha (spoiler alert: Buddha’s kindness and grace calmed the elephant before he could commit the act). We named him Nalagiri out of respect for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and because Nalagiri has some of the most bullet wounds of any of our elephants, a sure sign he’s had not-so-pleasant encounters with humans (like the Nalagiri of Buddhist legend).

I promised much less introspection for this post, so here’s a story that’s just neat. We were having another slow day in the park, checking all of our regular spots for elephant sightings without much (any) luck. Near the end of the morning, we spotted a lot of peacock tail feathers at the side of the road. This isn’t inherently unusual, but we typically see these feathers still attached to a bird that’s moving out of the way of our approaching vehicle. At first we passed the feathers completely, but after 20 feet, Nimal backed the vehicle up to see what was going on. What we saw terrified me.

Before I continue, I’ll inform you that my favorite movie hero is Indiana Jones. As a developing academic, I like to see myself in him, probably the most well-known (fictional) professor in popular culture. Unfortunately, probably the only thing we have in common is our fear of snakes. Don’t get me wrong, I know that snakes are hugely important to the ecosystems they inhabit, and I’m glad they exist and that there are people who study and protect them. But I’m not one of those people. So when we found the source of these detached peacock feathers just to the side of the road, I started to sweat. Just underneath some tall grass was a 10-foot long python in the process of slowly constricting its latest catch. Everyone in the vehicle thought this was the coolest sighting ever…except of course me. We stopped the vehicle and they immediately hopped out to investigate further…except of course me. They were in no real danger of getting as close as they did; the python was busy squeezing, so they were free to push a few pieces of grass aside to get a closer look. We never got a good look at the snake’s head, but even still, I stayed in the back of the car, satisfied to take photos with my phone to share here. This was the first large snake we have seen in Wasgamuwa (a few weeks earlier, we saw a tiny, non-venomous snake cross the road quickly in front of our vehicle). Needless to say, I’ll be a bit more cautious proceeding on foot to collect fecal samples in tall grasses from now on.

The peacock feather carnage we observed on the side of the road…

The peacock feather carnage we observed on the side of the road…

…and what we discovered upon closer inspection. That’s Nimal pointing at the snake, with an arrow added by me to help drive home the point. I know it’s a bad picture, but I wasn’t getting out of the car to get a better one, sorry. Still, you can make out the pattern of the python’s scales as it is wrapped around the unfortunate peacock.

…and what we discovered upon closer inspection. That’s Nimal pointing at the snake, with an arrow added by me to help drive home the point. I know it’s a bad picture, but I wasn’t getting out of the car to get a better one, sorry. Still, you can make out the pattern of the python’s scales as it is wrapped around the unfortunate peacock.

In my continuing series of fieldwork fails (#fieldworkfail), we had our share of vehicle problems this trip too. Early on in the trip, it rained continuously for a couple of days. This made road conditions tricky in some parts of the park. One morning, we came upon a truck full of gravel that had dug itself into the mud, unable to move. Eventually, it was rescued, having to dump a large portion of its load in order to facilitate this. We came upon the aftermath the next day, a huge pile of gravel sitting in the middle of the road on the way to one of our favorite elephant spots. We would have normally acknowledged this barrier by taking a different route, not wanting to risk getting stuck (again). But Nirosh, full of dedication and wanting to see more elephants, decided to test the vehicle’s limits and try to drive over it Land Rover style. As you can probably guess, this didn’t end well for us, and after a few minutes of weaseling our way over the gravel pile, we settled on the fact that we weren’t getting out soon. We spend the next 45 minutes digging ourselves out by hand without a shovel, resorting to using steel rods to move the gravel after our hands got tired. Still, we made it out, and I added another way to get the vehicle stuck to our growing list.

Our vehicle bottomed out on the pile of gravel, with Nirosh (left) using a stick to move away some of the gravel, and Dhanushka (right), our tracker for the day wishing he hadn’t agreed to ride with us.

Our vehicle bottomed out on the pile of gravel, with Nirosh (left) using a stick to move away some of the gravel, and Dhanushka (right), our tracker for the day wishing he hadn’t agreed to ride with us.

Alone, this incident wouldn’t have been remarkable enough to include as a story here. But the next morning, when we came upon the gravel pile again in the middle of the road, it still had our tire marks on it; apparently, we were the only ones stupid enough to try going over it. Nimal was our driver for the day, so when we approached the pile, we warned him not to try it, mentioning that we had gotten stuck for a while the day before. But, like father, like son, Nimal gunned it as we lurched to the top of the pile. This time though, our fate was immediately sealed: there was no way we were weaseling out of this one again. For two hours, we sat there trying to dig ourselves out of the gravel, but we were in deep. We resigned and called for help, getting pulled from the pile by the same truck who got stuck and dumped the pile there in the first place. The rain had prevented the park officials from clearning the pile in the first place, but luckily for us, by the next day, the pile was gone. And we didn’t have to worry about overeager drivers trying to climb the gravel again.

Nimal resigning to making a phone call for rescue after getting stuck on top of the gravel pile…again.

Nimal resigning to making a phone call for rescue after getting stuck on top of the gravel pile…again.

Bored wainting for our rescue vehicle, I took an opportunity to explore what was directly surrounding our vehicle. We see elephant footprints around the park all the time (they even fill with water after rain to provide drinking sources for other species), and you can make out the elephant’s nails at the top of the print.

Bored wainting for our rescue vehicle, I took an opportunity to explore what was directly surrounding our vehicle. We see elephant footprints around the park all the time (they even fill with water after rain to provide drinking sources for other species), and you can make out the elephant’s nails at the top of the print.

After this last trip, I got the chance to meet Rajnish at his primate research station in Dambulla, the closest “city” to my fieldsite in Wasgamuwa. He’s been studying the same groups of langurs at a nearby forest reserve for years, growing a behavioral and ecological database that becomes more valuable with time. It seemed like his station ran like a well-oiled machine, with a small team of field assistants fastidiously following monkeys in the forest to collect data. Rajnish also has international collaborators regularly visit the station (one from the US was there when I arrived).

The field station for the Primate Conservation and Research Project, Sri Lanka, located in Dambulla. Inside this house, samples are processed, data are stored, and field assistants live. The jeep is Rajnish’s field vehicle

The field station for the Primate Conservation and Research Project, Sri Lanka, located in Dambulla. Inside this house, samples are processed, data are stored, and field assistants live. The jeep is Rajnish’s field vehicle

Besides visiting the physical field station, I got to follow Rajnish into the forest to visit his fieldsite and field assistants (and of course, the monkeys). Unlike our elephant research, the primate project doesn’t take place in a national park, but in a forest reserve. The reserve also houses ancient Buddhist religious sites, reminding me of some of the structures I see in Mihintale. Our short jaunt into the forest reminded me of my first real field experience, which took place in South Africa while I was still an undergraduate student. Like Rajnish’s team now, I was also following monkeys in Africa, constantly craning my neck and looking through binoculars to catch glimpses of monkeys. It’s a much different experience than casually watching an elephant approach out in the open. So while the work Rajnish and his team are doing is important and valuable and rewarding, I remember why I didn’t become a primatologist. It’s also much more difficult to tell monkeys apart from each other. Rajnish’s assistants follow the monkeys from about 6:00am when they begin to wake up until 6:00pm when they settle into their sleeping sites (this makes it easier to find the monkeys the next morning). They collect behavioral data, record monkey vocalizations, and measure the physical features of plants that the monkeys eat. Over time, these data accumulate and allow researchers to ask questions dealing with long-term changes in the environment and the life histories of these animals (birth rates, death rates, etc.). In fact, the lack of long-term studies on Asian elephants limits the sort of questions we can ask.

A dagaba (stupa) in the forest reserve where the primate project takes place.

A dagaba (stupa) in the forest reserve where the primate project takes place.

Rajnish downloading the data from the weather station at his field site.

Rajnish downloading the data from the weather station at his field site.

A view from the clearing in the forest where the primate project takes place. I mean, it doesn’t have elephants, but I guess it’s pretty.

A view from the clearing in the forest where the primate project takes place. I mean, it doesn’t have elephants, but I guess it’s pretty.

I’m planning on visiting the field site again (maybe even when I get back from India), hopefully for longer. It’s nice to meet other researchers and field assistants to take away different perspectives on wildlife research. Plus, it’s always nice to interact with other people after being with the same four people in elephant land for two weeks at a time.

Until next time—